Colombia may have surprised a few people by reaching the last-eight of the 2014 World Cup but there shouldn’t be any raised eyebrows if they do something similar this time around.
Of course, they benefit from a comfortable looking group consisting of Poland, Senegal and Japan. But they have the right mix of experience and potential to reach the latter stages once again.
The friendly victory over France in March showed just what Los Cafeteros are capable of, while the quality of James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao and co. has the ability to hurt any side in this year’s World Cup.
In fact, it can be argued Colombia come into this tournament in better shape than four years ago. For starters, they will be able to call upon Falcao after ‘El Tigre’ missed the tournament in Brazil due to a knee injury.
And with James entering the competition on the back of a superb campaign under Jupp Heynckes at Bayern Munich, he will want to perform some magic on the world stage yet again.
Colombia's World Cup squad
Goalkeepers: Fernando Cuadrado, Ospina, Vargas
Defenders: Arias, Fabra, Lerma, Mina, Mojica, Murillo, D Sanchez, Zapata
Midfielders: Aguilar, Barrios, J Cuadrado, Izquierdo, Quintero, James, C Sanchez, Uribe
Forwards: Bacca, Borja, Falcao, Muriel
Manager Jose Pekerman has plenty of World Cup experience himself having been the man to lead Colombia to their last-eight finish four years ago, while he did the same for Argentina in 2006.
It’s no wonder Colombians will be dreaming of another World Cup adventure.
How did they qualify?
Qualifying for the World Cup as a South American nation is never easy and Colombia certainly made life hard for themselves.
It looked as though Pekerman’s side would be easing through before a shock draw against Venezuela set up a nervy finish.
A credible point against Brazil could only be followed up by an astonishing loss to Paraguay. It left Colombia at the centre of one of the most dramatic final days in the history of CONMEBOL qualifying.
They headed into the final match with a record of six wins, six draws and five defeats from their 17 matches. That left them fourth ahead of their fixture with Peru. If results went their way, they could finish second.
If results went against them, they could finish seventh. What made it even more dramatic was the fact that Peru were just one point behind them. But after achieving a 1-1 draw in Lima, Los Cafeteros snuck through in fourth - one point ahead of both Peru and Chile and three clear of Paraguay. Phew.
Just like four years ago in Brazil, Colombia will be looking towards James to produce the magic. The then-22-year-old became a worldwide star with his performances in 2014, winning the Golden Boot with his six goals and making a €75m move from Monaco to Real Madrid after the tournament.
It’s been a turbulent four years for James since but he’s enjoyed the first season of a two-year spell at Bayern Munich and will go into the summer’s tournament full of confidence.
The spine of this Colombian side will give them belief they can emulate the relative success of their 2014 campaign. David Ospina will start in goal with the likes of AC Milan’s Cristian Zapata, Barcelona’s Yerry Mina and Tottenham’s Davinson Sanchez all competing for a place in central defence.
Going forward, James and Juventus’ Juan Cuadrado - if he recovers properly from his groin injury - will provide creativity but it’s in attack where Colombia have serious firepower.
Captain Falcao is expected to lead the line but will be backed up by the likes of Carlos Bacca - on loan from Milan to Villarreal - and Sevilla’s Luis Muriel.
One to watch - Yerry Mina
Yerry Mina certainly won’t be the highest-profile Barcelona player on show in Russia this summer. The 23-year-old completed a €12m move from Palmeiras to the Camp Nou in January and has made just two appearances for Ernesto Valverde’s side this season.
But Pekerman is well aware of his abilities and has handed him 11 caps for the national side, in which he’s impressed. Mina could actually form a solid partnership with Tottenham’s Sanchez at the heart of defence, a pairing that was used against France in the March friendly.
While the majority of fans watching the World Cup will be fully aware of Mina, there might be one Colombia player less well-known that could impress in Russia.
Colombian football expert Carl Worswick suggests Boca Juniors’ Wilmar Barrios “will surely get a big European move after the World Cup” after a brilliant season in Argentina.
However, the fact the 24-year-old plays in the same position as the experienced Carlos Sanchez might mean he has to settle for a place on the bench.
While Pekerman didn’t have a very successful playing career - retiring at the age of 28 due to an injury - he’s made the most of his managerial skills.
He won the FIFA World Youth Championships three times with Argentina Under-20s, as well as two South American Youth Championships.
He was then appointed coach for the Argentine national side ahead of the 2006 World Cup, where he led them to the quarter-finals before losing to Germany on penalties.
He resigned after the tournament and had two short spells at Mexican clubs Club Toluca and UANL Tigres before becoming Colombian manager in January 2012.
He helped Colombia qualify for the 2014 World Cup - the first time they’d reached the finals in 16 years - and they impressed until a 2-1 quarter-final defeat to hosts Brazil.
A third-place finish at the 2016 Copa America is also worthy of putting on his CV.
The 68-year-old is expected to leave after this summer’s tournament with his contract set to expire and he will be hoping to go out on a high.
Despite being in charge of Colombia for six years, Pekerman appears to be indecisive over which formation best suits his side right now. During qualification he opted for a 4-2-3-1 formula but he has experimented with both 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 recently.
Potential route to the final
With FIFA regulations stating you can’t be drawn in a group against a nation of the same confederation - with the exception of Europe where two countries can be paired - Colombia knew they would avoid both Brazil and Argentina.
Instead, they got the wish of all Pot 2 nations by being drawn against Poland - arguably the weakest side in Pot 1. In doing so, they avoided the likes of Germany, Belgium and France. Joining Poland and Colombia are Senegal and Japan - meaning Group H is the only group in the World Cup not to contain a previous World Cup winner.
While they’ve got a favourable group, things get immediately tougher if they do progress. The reward for Jose Pekerman’s side if they go through as group winners will be a last-16 tie against whoever qualifies as runners-up from Group G - likely to be Belgium or England.
If they win their group and beat the runners-up of Group G in the last-16, Germany could await in the quarter-finals with the prospect of Spain in the last-four.
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Carl Worswick, Colombian football expert based in Bogata
“After stuttering their way through the South American qualifiers, Colombia have continued to scratch around for solutions to issues that have frustrated their path ever since an historic last-eight finish in Brazil four years ago. But while they remain a work in progress, there are encouraging signs that manager Perkeman’s transitional struggles are coming to an end.
“Victory in Paris over France in the recent March friendlies showed there is an alternative to the timeworn 4-2-3-1 formula frequently favoured in the qualifiers, while the manner in which Colombia battled back from 2-0 down after a dreadful opening 25 minutes to beat the French on their own patch showed a mental toughness often lacking in Colombian teams of years gone by.
“A simple warm-up friendly it may have been, but with potential to burn and World Cup Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez four years more mature and continuing to provide the team’s attacking bite (six goals and four assists in qualifying), Colombia will again arrive in Russia hoping to spring a surprise.”
Colombia are out at 33/1 to win the World Cup in the summer*, a price which reflects the size of their challenge.
However, there is value to be had as you can get Colombia to be knocked out at the semi-final stage at 10/1.* As for their Group H odds, they’re slight favourites over Poland to win the group.
While Brazil are expected to carry the South American flag in Russia, Colombia are 8/1 to be the top South America team* and go further than the other four teams from their continent.
*Please note these odds are correct at time of publishing and could be subject to change.
**GiveMeSport brings you this article in collaboration with William Hill